Monthly Archives: October 2007

Huhne: is Trident the right issue?

Chris Huhne clearly believes the Trident issue is key to his success and yesterday I was sent an email from Duncan Brack, Chair of the Federal Conference Committee, endorsing him specifically for this reason. They may well be right and they are certainly right that our current policy of sitting squarely on the fence in the hope that we never have to make a difficult decision is unsustainable. I certainly don’t share Linda Jack’s cynicism – if you are a senior cabinet member you must choose your battles carefully, especially when you have a vulnerable leader and rivals who are alert to any sign of disloyalty (if it is such a major issue of conscience, Linda, why didn’t you resign from the FPC? And why are you backing Clegg?).

Good internal politics it may be, but is it good external politics? There are certainly people out there who feel strongly about nuclear disarmament, but they are relatively few in number. For all my criticisms of Clegg for demanding the party move out of its comfort zone and reaching out beyond our supporter base and then not doing so, I agree with the sentiment. Kickstarting a debate about Trident doesn’t do either, although it does at least address one of my major concerns which is that our policy ceases to face both ways.

It is good that Huhne is looking for dividing lines, just as he did in 2006; apart from anything else it will make the contest more interesting in what was looking increasingly likely to turn into a snore-fest. But if the public perceive that the contest was fought on largely emic party obsessions and not on the issues that matter to them, whoever wins will struggle to hit the ground running in December. He should turn to bread and butter issues as we get closer to the day when the ballot papers are sent out.

Reclaiming liberty in order to destroy it

I find this quite perplexing:

‘Gordon is trying to build up a systematic argument in a slow burn,’ one cabinet minister said. ‘If you talk about Britain’s, and his, commitment to liberty, then you provide a context for further debates about issues such as 90 days [for detention without charge.] It is a new approach. Under Tony, the 90-day idea came out of nowhere.’ A change on detention without charge – doubling the current limit of 28 days to 56 – is likely to be signalled in the Queen’s Speech once Brown’s message on liberty has been digested.

So, basically, Brown is paying lip service to Britain’s deep commitment to liberty in order to destroy it? And this is presented by an unnamed cabinet minister as clever politics? Where has Labour’s moral compass gone?

How Nick Clegg meets his own standards

Okay, I admit it. If I hadn’t been hungover yesterday morning I probably would have resisted the temptation to use the word “meltdown” in my blog about Team Clegg yesterday. A wobble it certainly was however, and while I of course accept Richard Allan’s apology, he still has not explained where the email addresses they were using had come from. One suggestion has been that it was Ming Campbell’s supporter list (something which I was signed up to as I was certainly an ABH voter).

The fact that I claim to be undecided in this election despite the fact that I express warmth to Chris Huhne’s campaign and am rather more critical of Nick Clegg seems to cause some people a lot of confusion, so let me be more explicit: my default position is that unless Nick Clegg badly alienates me, or Chris Huhne does something bloody spectacular, my vote will be going to the former not the latter.

Chris Huhne was the right candidate in 2006 and everything that has happened since has vindicated that fact. We wouldn’t be where we are now if he had been elected. But Nick Clegg is not Ming Campbell. That Clegg is the better communicator is clear. One person who was at the South Central conference last Saturday put it to me yesterday thus: both candidates spoke with passion about social justice but while Huhne barraged the audience with statistics, Clegg talked about a woman on a housing estate in his constituency. The best part of Ming Campbell’s speech at party conference – the part that signified that he finally got it – was when he talked about the people he had met since becoming leader, and their experiences.

Chris Huhne ought to set himself a challenge: when he next does a keynote speech he should make it a statistics-free zone. Clegg’s speech this week certainly was.

Saying all that however doesn’t make me an uncritical flag-waver of Nick Clegg by default, a fact which appears to cause a number of readers of this blog great difficulty. Where did all this bullshit about undeclared bloggers having to be impartial come from? What’s wrong with being inclined to vote Clegg but having a sense of loyalty to Huhne? And what’s wrong with pointing out that the Golden Child has feet of clay?

For feet of clay he certainly has. His campaign launch last week didn’t merely not impress me, it pissed me off because I felt he was insulting the intelligence of a very significant section of the party. Extolling the party to move out of its ‘comfort zone’ does not ring true coming from a candidate who, two years ago, was telling us to do the opposite. It was simply not true to claim that the party has been locked up in “internal self-analysis.” And claiming to be anti-establishment whilst having the clear backing of most of both the party and media establishment was simply bizarre. He should hire Antony Hook as his personal BS-detector.

But let’s take the two key ideas that came out of his Sheffield speech – the need for the party to move out of its comfort zone and the need for us to extend our supporter base – and apply it to his speech this week at the National Liberal Club. The latter speech has five main themes – empowering individuals, extending opportunity, balancing security and liberty, protecting the environment, engaging with the world – and I’ll take each one in turn, giving each a rating out of five for comfort (5 – the Liberal Democrat equivalent of a plush sofa in front of a roaring fire), reaching out (5 – the political equivalent of Mr Tickle) and my personal opinion. Generally speaking, a low comfort rating and a high reaching out rating suggests that the substance broadly matches the rhetoric:

Empowering Individuals

First of all, “empowering individuals” is horrid language. Of course, Huhne has already bagged “people in charge” so maybe he was stuck with how to put it. And to be fair, he recovers well with this important distinction:

“Our objective isn’t simply to bring power closer to people. It is to give power to people.”

I’m also not sure about this stuff about favouring communities over bureaucracies. Of course the former is always preferable over the latter, but they are hardly opposites and communities can be pretty oppressive things. One of the key features of “proper” community politics as opposed to communitarianism is that the latter lionises community while the former critiques it. Indeed, at worst, communities can be pretty bureaucratic themselves: there is an order of things, and woe betide anyone who does not go along with that. My parents’ experience of joining a village community 7 years ago would confirm that.

Much of the rest of this section is firmly in the comfort zone: change the electoral system and localism. No great surprises there. The key paragraph in this section is here:

“We need to set some ground rules here: our universal public services must be free to use and accessible to all. But beyond that, I want us to think afresh about how they should be funded and delivered.”

It is a shame he does not expand on this. How does this differ from, say, the Huhne Commission on Public Services which the party adopted four years ago? Does he side with Steve Webb or David Laws (Chris Huhne’s own position on this is spelt out here)? This is a crucial area we need to hear much more detail from him on.

Comfort rating: most of it is pretty safe ground and even the rhetoric about public services is pretty similar to what Kennedy was saying five years ago. 4/5

Reaching out rating: talked about PR without mentioning PR, which is good politics. But mostly this is well trod territory for the Lib Dems. 2/5

Personal rating: nothing new, but little I object to. 4/5

Extending Opportunity

This section, to me, is particularly confused. First of all, it’s a red rag to a bull, I’m afraid, to call for the Lib Dems to work ceaselessly for a meritocratic society, for reasons that I’ve already outlined on this blog. Saying you believe in a society where everyone gets their just deserts is another way of saying that some people ‘deserve’ to be poor. You can comfort yourself that you strive for equality of opportunity, but ultimately it is social Darwinism by any other name.

Much of this section is taken up discussing the pupil premium policy, which is already party policy and wholly uncontroversial within it.

On benefits, Clegg seems to be, well, confused. In particular, I simply don’t understand this bit:

“Tony Blair famously promised ‘a hand up, not a hand out’, but Gordon Brown’s obsession with means tested benefits has had precisely the opposite effect.

“The Liberal Democrats will deliver where this government has failed. We must take people on higher earnings off means tested benefits and use the money to help the poorest pupils in our school system.”

What he’s actually calling for here is more means testing, not less, but he presents it as if he opposes means testing. Again, what it boils down to is a restating of party policy, shortening the taper of tax credits. But then our policy isn’t quite as simple as that as we are also in favour of raising child benefit, which higher earners would also be entitled to.

This bit is also confused:

A higher basic pension, linked to earnings, will get our pensioners out of poverty and off welfare for good.

Well, I suppose. If you don’t regard the basic state pension as welfare – a position which is pretty unsustainable since the link between NI and pensions became so eroded. And again, there’s nothing new here.

We have, to be fair here, a slightly confusing policy (not a criticism, just a statement of fact), but Clegg’s role here is to provide clarity not obfuscation.

But in a section on social mobility, it is striking what Clegg does not mention here: housing. How can you do a speech about social mobility and not reflect on housing? This is an issue that effects hundreds of thousands of people across the country and is shooting up the political agenda. We can’t afford to be silent on it. What is his position on the number of houses we need to build nationwide for instance? What does he have to say about council housing?

Linked to that is another of my pet issues: intergenerational equity. Linked inextricably with social mobility, what does Clegg have to say about the fact that wealth is increasingly being locked up within families, causing wider mobility problems and causing the burden of taxation to lie unfairly on incomes?

Neither housing nor intergenerational equity are obscure issues. Read any national newspaper and you’ll see these cropping up again and again. There are votes in these areas for a party leader looking to reach out beyond the Lib Dems’ normal supporter base.

Comfort rating: there doesn’t seem to be anything here that the party didn’t back overwhelmingly at conference last month. 5/5

Reaching out rating: education and pensions are hardly new territory for us. 2/5

Personal rating: no mention of housing or intergenerational equity is a major disappointment for me, and much of the rhetoric seems confused. 1/5

Balancing Security and Liberty

First of all, since when did Liberal Democrats talk about “balancing security and liberty”? Indeed, I challenge any liberal to demur with this statement from our recent governance policy paper (pdf):

“Security can only be genuinely realised if liberty, justice and human rights are upheld as the cornerstone of our democratic system, to be enjoyed by all on an equal basis. Liberal Democrats believe that ceding liberty to attain security jeopardises both.”

With that said, this lazy formula is not returned to in the body of the speech itself. Indeed, not surprisingly for our Shadow Home Secretary, this section is one of the strongest parts and I think he gets the balance right.

What I’m less convinced by however is that there is anything here that Simon Hughes or Mark Oaten weren’t saying before him. One of Clegg’s selling points is that he isn’t afraid to talk about crime but I’m simply not convinced that he’s bringing anything particularly new to the table.

What he is probably better at doing is articulating our policies. Credit to him is due for ditching Oaten’s stance about “tough liberalism”. But again, is this reaching out to people and knocking the party out of its comfort zone? Oaten at least could be credited with attempting to do that with his rhetoric; the problem was his rhetoric was utter balls.

Comfort rating: nothing new here, and a comfortingly liberal approach. 4/5

Reaching out rating: I know how the media works and that simply by saying that the Liberal Democrats must not be afraid to talk about crime makes it sound like he’s being much more radical than he is. 3/5

Personal rating: I can’t fault the rhetoric, but the slogan about balancing security and liberty has got to go the same way as Tony Blair who loved it so much. 4/5

Protecting the Environment

This is turf that Huhne has made his own, so it is interesting to see how Clegg’s position contrasts. What he does not do is make the case for climate change – that battle has already been won. What he does instead is discuss how we can win people over to make personal sacrifices for environmental gains. I have to give credit where it is due: this is an important topic to highlight and a good tactical stance to try and put some water between the two candidates.

Once again: notice the complete absence of statistics in this section, even in a section on climate change of all topics. His broad theme, that government must practice what it preaches, reminds me of the running battles that Donnachadh McCarthy used to have with the Ashdown and Kennedy regimes to persuade them of the same thing. How far we’ve come.

But for all that, once again, I’m also very conscious that there is almost nothing here that is new. It is also unclear where he ultimately stands on the party’s green tax switch policy – the line about people hearing only “tax” when you talk about green taxes is well made but almost suggests an antipathy to this approach. There is almost nothing in this section that David Cameron wouldn’t be comfortable about saying, with the obvious exception of the last two paragraphs of course.

Comfort rating: a gentle critique of the current party stance. 3/5

Reaching out rating: the emphasis on practicing what we preach and international efforts don’t hurt. But ultimately, talking about the environment at all will switch a lot of people off. 3/5

Personal rating: I don’t disagree with his line of argument, but wonder where it leads us. 3/5

Engaging with the world

Another strong section which I struggle to find fault with. Indeed the final three paragraphs are quite stirring stuff for any internationalist:

“But the great external threats that we face – from climate change to terrorism to cross border crime – are all linked by one fact: that power has been globalised, but our methods for controlling it have not.

“The challenge before us then is to construct a system of global governance capable of controlling global power.

“Only Liberalism, with its easy accommodation both with the market economics that drive globalisation and the internationalist politics needed to regulate it, is capable of guiding us in this process.”

But once again I return to my two tests: in what way is this breaking free of the party’s comfort zone or reaching out to new supporters? This is traditional Lib Dem policy in traditional Lib Dem territory.

Comfort rating: stirring internationalist stuff which conveniently avoids any talk of referendums. 5/5

Reaching out rating: even the populist globalisation stuff such as international development (I thought it was required by law that all senior politicians must pay homage to Make Poverty History in any speech on globalisation these days?) is barely touched on here. And what about that referendum? 1/5

Personal rating: Great stuff, but then I’m weird. 5/5

TOTAL COMFORT RATING: 21/25
TOTAL REACHING OUT RATING: 11/25
TOTAL PERSONAL RATING: 17/25

Conclusions: the rhetoric does not match the detail. There is very little that I could find in this speech that was new or challenging. This was a well articulated speech that will do little to persuade members of anything other than of Nick Clegg’s presentation skills and accord with core party values. Some of his rhetoric – about balancing security and liberty, a rose-tinted view about community and a mild scepticism about green taxes – sound conservative, but there is more than enough evidence here to suggest that Clegg is firmly liberal.

If he wants a rightwards shift in our policies on crime and public services (for example) now is the time to start talking about them and to seek a mandate for change. But he hasn’t. There is little I object to here and much that I strongly applaud. But if Clegg is going to continue to make speeches like this, he should drop the hyperbole about shaking up the party.

Steel backs Huhne over Trident

I’m in the middle of writing a long post about Nick Clegg’s big speech this week, but this announcement is worth breaking off to mention:

“Having enjoyed a talk with both candidates there is also one policy matter which motivates my choice. The current party policy on Trident replacement is that we don’t need to make a decision yet. While that is technically correct, it is hardly a convincing stance to put before the electorate.

“With the end of the cold war, with our armed forces requiring better equipment in the fight against terrorism, and with service families seeking improved housing, it is (as former defence chief Lord Brammall argued in a House of Lords debate) unsustainable to commit billions of pounds on a new generation of so called independent nuclear deterrent. Chris Huhne will be bolder on that issue.”

This is surely correct. What is mystifying is why Clegg does not agree. What was all that stuff about breaking free of our comfort zone last week? This policy represents possibly our greatest act of fence sitting in recent times. If Clegg is so anti comfort zones, does this mean he has come out in favour of Trident? We need a statement on this.

Team Clegg: in full scale meltdown?

What is going on with Team Clegg? As Mark Littlewood wrote earlier this week, Clegg has surrounded himself with a team of people who, in 2006, very nearly let a 200-1 longshot defeat him.

It has taken them a geological age, in political terms, for them to get their website up and running.

Then, yesterday, I got an email message informing me that I had joined the teamclegg email list. All very interesting, but no-one asked me. Then, abruptly and with no explaination, I got an email this morning informing me that I had been removed.

I’m not sure whether to be offended that they added me to an email list that I didn’t ask to subscribe to, or offended that they clearly deem me not worthy to be on their list.

Surely Nick Clegg understands basic data protection law and good practice? If this is the haphazard way he plans to run the party, we should all be deeply concerned. My earlier comments that a good leader must have a good understanding of organisation is now at the forefront of my mind. If he can’t organise his way out of a paper bag, it won’t matter how great his charisma is – or even that he once appeared in a play with Helena Bonham Carter – a vote for him would be an act of irresponsibility.

Still undecided, but veering in a Huhne-ward direction this morning…

Abortion – only liberalism has the answer

The New Scientist has an interesting article this week all about abortion, which seems to be back in the news in a big way today. You can’t read it all online unless you have a subscription, but the nub of it is:

Tellingly, the number of abortions fell almost exclusively in rich countries where terminating a pregnancy is both legal and safe. In poorer countries, where access to abortion is often restricted or illegal, there has been very little progress in reducing the number of abortions, says Shah.

In such countries, women are prepared to endanger their lives to terminate a pregnancy (see “By any means available”). In Africa, for example, where access to safe, legal abortions is almost non-existent, there were 29 abortions per 1000 women of childbearing age in 2003. In Europe, where abortion is widely available and legal (with the exception of Poland and Ireland), the rate was almost identical, at 28.

Even in eastern Europe, abortion rates have halved from 90 abortions per 1000 women in 1995*, to 44 per 1000 in 2003 – thanks almost entirely to the wider availability of effective contraceptives. “We now have a very powerful body of data from multiple countries showing a connection between the rise in contraception availability and a decline in abortions,” says Camp.

Bottom line: making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it, it just makes it more dangerous. If you want to reduce the abortion rate, encourage greater use of contraception. But of course the religious right don’t like that.

And if you want to reduce the number of late abortions, scrap the two referrals rule. But again, the religious right don’t like that either.

Ultimately, if your concern is reducing harm, this really is a no-brainer. If your agenda is ideological purity on the other hand…

* If you refer back to the original text, you will see that it says 2005, which makes no sense. However the study it is referring to compares the 1995 situation with 2003, so the meaning is clear.